Last week, the Daily Beast reported that Georgia’s Republican nominee for Senate, Herschel Walker, paid for a woman he was dating to have an abortion in 2009. Since then, the Washington Post has corroborated the report, adding the wrinkle that Walker had requested the abortion but she had to ask him to pay for it. Walker has denied the allegation and has been emphatically anti-abortion on the campaign trail.
What has struck me has been the reaction by the white evangelical voters that make up the Republican Party. This is just the latest of many stories that have emerged about Walker – including physical abuse of women, holding a gun to his ex-wife’s head, at least three undisclosed children, lies about working in law enforcement, lies about his business and academic history, and more. But, among Republican voters and the Republican establishment, support for Walker has not waned.
I try not to be naive about American politics. I know power and winning have always been the primary drivers of elections, but at some point in the last ten years, it feels like something fundamentally changed. In a 2020 PRRI survey, 71% of Republicans say that an elected official who personally behaves in an immoral way can still be effective in their public and professional life. That’s compared to 57% of independents and just under half of Democrats (47%). In 2011, only 36% of Republicans felt that way.
Hypocrisy has long been the coin of the realm in Washington. And it’s easier to attack the flaws of your rivals than to condemn members of your own party, but the election of Donald Trump may have marked a turning point where the public behavior of politicians simply doesn’t matter. In 2017, Alabama voters rejected Roy Moore after allegations that he’d previously preyed on teenage girls. Would voters make that same choice just five years later? I’m not so sure.
White evangelical voters make up the core of the Republican Party, a transformation that began during Nixon’s Southern Strategy and accelerated during the 80s and 90s. And these days, it seems that they demand absolute fidelity on policies like abortion but not on personal behavior related to those issues. Walker’s opponent, Senator Raphael Warnock, is a Baptist minister but holds policy positions anathema to white Evangelical voters. I reached out to Dr. Michael Altman, an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and a co-developer of the uncivilreligion initiative, which documents the role of religion in the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, for his analysis of how the relationship between evangelical voters and their elected officials has changed.
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Reckon: At one point, these scandals would’ve tanked a political career. But Herschel Walker’s approval with evangelical voters remains high. Why do you think it is?
Dr. Michael Altman: I think in the past ten years conservative voters who might identify as “born again” or “evangelical” have taken an instrumentalist approach to electoral politics that puts policy ahead of personal morality. In some ways, the politics of the religious right have come full circle. Ronald Regan and George W. Bush relied on conservative white Protestant voters to build their winning electoral coalitions by connecting conservative theological positions with conservative social and even fiscal policy on issues from taxes to LGBT rights to racial equality. The pitch was, you are a good Christian so you should vote for these policies. But that was so effective that now you don’t need the candidate to be “a good Christian,” you just need them to support the right policies. Secondly, there is this theological loophole in contemporary conservative Christianity where “forgiveness” becomes a way to exonerate any politician’s past so long as they have the right political policy now. In short, if evangelicals have moved from arguing that you need politicians with orthodox or right Christian beliefs who would make good policy to arguing that all you need is orthodox or right political policy. The political ends have become the priority over any theology, morality, or evangelical Christian litmus test.
Reckon: I’ve read some prominent conservatives argue that Walker’s position on abortion, like others, may have evolved in the last decade. People do change their stances on positions, but in some states aiding an abortion is now considered a crime. Are we at a point where the politics of abortion policy supersede any individual morality?
Altman: I’m not sure I know how to judge individual morality. But I will say that abortion policy has become more of an identity issue than a simple question of what the best public policy is. To be “pro life” (or “pro choice,” for that matter) is to take on a particular kind of political identity that connects you with others in this sort of “pro life social group.” People don’t identify with being “pro transportation policy” like they do abortion rights. It’s not a policy issue one has an opinion about, it is a identity marker of who one is. To that end, so long as Walker is able to demonstrate to other “pro life” voters that he shares that identity with them and is part of their social group he will keep their support. Electoral politics, especially on the right maybe, has become more and more an identity driven process where candidates aren’t convincing voters with their ideas but, rather, performing an identity that voters can recognize and identify with.
Reckon: I don’t want to suggest that the Democratic Party is somehow the party of personal morality, they have had their own fair share of hypocrisies and inconsistencies in the past. But it’s been interesting to see the evolution of the “value voters” and “moral majority” party. In a 2020 PRRI survey, 71% of Republicans say that an elected official who personally behaves in an immoral way can still be effective in their public and professional life. That’s compared to 57% of independents and just under half of Democrats (47%). In 2011, only 36% of Republicans felt that way. What’s happened?
Altman: That shift in the importance of personal morality shows a shift toward seeing politics as an instrument towards social ends rather than a process that itself needs to be reformed or even “redeemed,” to use the Christian terminology. In the past, Billy Graham would say that the way to “win the country for God” was to convert as many Americans to born-again Christians and elect as many born-again Christian political leaders as possible. Then a country full of Christians and led by Christians would be more godly. That didn’t seem to work though. There was a self-confessed evangelical president in George W. Bush and conservative Christians still didn’t get the country they wanted. So that theory has died. Now, the way to “win the country for God” is to set up “godly policy” and if you have to use a few sinners to make that happen, then so be it. The goal isn’t the process anymore, it’s the political power at the end.
Reckon: I happen to be reading a biography of Jimmy Carter right now and it’s interesting that he was a very devout, born again Baptist but was insistent on the separation of church and state. That used to be a standard Baptist position. When did that change?
Altman: That was the Baptist position theologically and there are examples of someone like the Baptist Roger Williams whose views of separation of church and state got him thrown out of colonial New England, but that hasn’t always been the actual practice. During the colonial period and in the early American republic Baptists faced opposition and discrimination from colonial and state governments. Thomas Jefferson famously championed the religious freedom of Baptists in Virginia. But those calls for separation of church and state were about Baptists wanting the freedom to preach and worship without government interference. They weren’t about not meddling in politics at all. Even Jefferson relied on Baptist preachers to support him during his run for president. So yes, historically Baptists have advocated for a separation of church and state but most often that has been in terms of their own religious freedom. We now see that same language of “religious freedom” used by Baptists and other conservative Protestants to claim political power especially around issues of discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Reckon: I know you’ve studied the role that religion plays in politics, has there always been that tension between personal morality and public morality?
Altman: That tension has always been there but how it has resolved or what the contours of it have been different at different times. For example, John Adams attacked Thomas Jefferson as an atheist during their presidential election. Jefferson won with lots of support from Baptists and other Protestants. At other times voters didn’t know much about the personal morality of candidates and politicians because the press didn’t cover it. John F. Kennedy had to answer lots of questions about his Catholicism during his campaign. That was the biggest “personal” issue he had to deal with. So, these questions of how personal morality maps onto public morality are always going to be there but how they map onto each other shifts as American society shifts and as we have new issues and questions as a society that we are trying to answer.